Editor’s Note: Marcie Bianco is a writer and editor living in California. She is currently writing a book on freedom, equality and feminism. The views expressed here are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.
A unique confluence of events this past weekend put a laser focus on how so many men have capitalized, for their own career success, on both society’s pleasure in consuming accounts of women’s suffering and our propensity for denigrating “nasty women.”
On Friday, the documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” produced by the New York Times about the pop star’s controversial life, premiered on FX and Hulu – exposing in new ways and for new audiences the extent to which Spears’ health and career suffered as she was hounded by the media and battled with her father, with whom she has been in a multi-year legal battle for control of her life.
Spears’ father, Jamie, has been her conservator for 13 years, exercising authority over her financial decisions and affairs (an arrangement she petitioned to change in August). The documentary takes viewers through that, as well as back to Spears’ childhood and rise to fame, emphasizing how as a celebrity she was hyper-sexualized and subjected to questions about her body, her virginity and other topics that male pop stars of the era rarely faced. She is shown being relentlessly pursued by paparazzi and being shamed in the media as a bad mother to her then-infant son.
Many celebrities and other viewers reacted strongly to seeing Spears’ pain on screen, expressing support and tweeting with the hashtag #FreeBritney. At the same time, in advance of Super Bowl LV on Sunday, many people were tweeting about #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay (as Jackson fans have done often since the 2004 “wardrobe malfunction,” to try to reclaim Super Bowl celebrations in her name).
What do these developments share in common? Among other things: an expression of society’s attitude toward the bodies and lives of famous women – and Justin Timberlake, whose relationship with both women exemplifies (whatever his own intention) how men benefit from a cultural acceptance of misogyny.
Timberlake and Spears had been a legendary star couple. They performed together on The Mickey Mouse Club as children and dated for four years before splitting in 2002, just as Timberlake was launching what would become his blockbuster solo career and two years before he, while performing with Janet Jackson at Super Bowl XXXVIII, botched a “costume reveal” and briefly exposed Jackson’s breast on live television. Both Timberlake and Jackson apologized afterward, but Jackson suffered severe consequences to her career, including being blacklisted by Viacom, while Timberlake’s thrived. Most notably, in the immediate aftermath, Timberlake was invited to attend the 2004 Grammy Awards while Jackson was not.
Driven largely by discussion of the Spears documentary and Janet Jackson Appreciation Day, social media lit up with conversations about Timberlake’s relationship with Spears and public humiliation (even if inadvertent) of, her idol, Janet Jackson, as platforms for his career. The layering effect of these conversations effectively reframed Timberlake’s launch and establishment of his solo music career. The documentary specifically highlighted how Timberlake appeared to control the media narrative about his breakup with Spears, complete with claims that she cheated on him and broke his heart – expressed in his debut solo album, “Justified.” According to a recent Buzzfeed report, Timberlake is receiving a high volume of criticism on Instagram, along with demands he apologize to Spears. Timberlake did not respond to Buzzfeed’s requests for comment.
What the documentary suggested to me is the very real possibility that Timberlake’s solo career was laid on the societal shaming of Britney Spears. Examine the sequenced releasing of songs and his media promotion of the 2002 album, which centered on the couple’s breakup. “Like I Love You,” a modest success that musically situated Timberlake as a Michael Jackson wannabe, set the ex-boy bander up in popular culture as a devoted Romeo. In the next act, the second single “Cry Me a River” presented Timberlake as a heartbroken victim of a deceitful, cheating woman – in the video, this woman is portrayed as a Britney doppelgänger.
The actress who played this part, Lauren Hastings, was a Spears lookalike. Spears herself alluded to this in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, in which she revealed that Timberlake called her to tell her “by the way, you’re in a video that’s coming out.” After seeing the video, Britney added, “I should’ve freakin’ said no to this s**t!”
In perhaps the least subtle turn of these events, during a 2002 interview with Barbara Walters about his life, Walters asked Timberlake “what went wrong” in his relationship with Spears to prompt their (then-recent) breakup. Timberlake recalled telling Spears that he would always love her and promising that he would never say “specifically” why they broke up. When Walters pursued the question, alluding to the possibility that Spears had been unfaithful, Timberlake said “We’re not perfect, I don’t judge anybody.” The interview then cuts to Timberlake performing an unreleased song (notable since the interview was promoting his recently-released solo debut album) called “Don’t Go (Horrible Woman).” Along with a statement of the woman’s relative worthlessness, the lyrics included the words: “Hey girl / At least you gave me another song about a horrible woman / And that’s you, but it’s true.” The move was widely interpreted as a reference to Spears.
The chiastic effect – Britney’s downfall, Justin’s ascent – was replicated a few years later, this time, with Spears’s idol, Janet Jackson as Timberlake’s foil. While Jackson was publicly vilified after their joint Super Bowl performance, Timberlake’s initial response seemed to border on gleeful: “We love giving you all something to talk about,” he told “Access Hollywood” the night of the Super Bowl performance. Three years later, in 2007, he acknowledged to MTV that he “could’ve handled it better,” adding that he considered himself a member of a community of artists, and “if there was something I could have done in her defense that was more, that I could have realized, then I would have.” He also said: “If you consider it 50-50, I probably got 10% of the blame, and that says something about society…I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America’s unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”
“That says something about society.” Here is, in my reading, Timberlake’s unintentional reveal: He knows how society treats women, that society, to quote Jude Ellison S. Doyle, loves a female celebrity “trainwreck.” He knows the compounding effect that the media has through the relentless negative portrayals, stereotyping, and shaming of women. And, yet, despite this awareness, the extent of any semblance of accountability only goes as far as him recognizing that misogyny exists in society – intensified through the media – to systematically penalize and silence women.
While not ultimately responsible for Spears’ fate, Timberlake encouraged and profited from a broader culture that celebrates and derives pleasure and profit from women’s suffering. And this is what the documentary makes astoundingly clear.
“There was too much money to be made off her suffering,” New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris observes in the documentary about how an entire industry was built on this kind of exploitation. Or, as gossip blogger Perez Hilton quips, “Thank you, Britney Spears – being bad is good for my business.”
Denying accountability is a quintessential strategy to maintain dominance in society. “The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions,” Audre Lorde wrote in an essay published in “Sister Outsider.” Men keep their power through this denial, which grants them limitless currency to continue to do as they please.
This denial, arguably, is the bastion of American “freedom” – a deliberate bastardization of the concept to mean the right of a person to do anything they want.
From Timberlake to former President Donald Trump and beyond, men’s ability to dismiss or impugn women for profit depends on their ability to benefit from or weaponize misogyny and then deny it is what they are doing. The cultural conversations about misogyny have changed over the past two decades, in large part thanks to the #MeToo movement. Yet, despite this paradigm shift, what remains unchanged is society’s failure to adopt the language and tools of accountability.
If the societal change necessary for dignity and justice is to occur, we must move from awareness to accountability. To be clear, accountability is not about being “canceled,” as those angry that they are finally being held to account for their actions often claim. Awareness of how one’s actions have affected other people is the first step of accountability.
Because accountability takes time and includes consequences, it is not as easily palatable as the effortless, rhetorical “sorry if….” Understanding the consequences of your actions and your power in situations can lead to discussions about, to quote the writer Sarah Schulman, your “duty to repair” the real harms created. Self-critical reflection means understanding your complicity in systems and discourses that perpetuate misogyny and working with others to change them. And, if his 2018 book “Hindsight” — in which, without mentioning Spears, he explains “Cry Me a River” by reiterating he was ” scorned” and “pissed off” when he wrote it – is any indication, it appears that Timberlake has done very little repair work in terms of the harm he’s done. With the documentary’s release and calls for his response and apology on social media, the opportunity has presented itself for Timberlake to fully take responsibility for his actions.
Without accountability, there no end in sight to the many forms of misogyny that continue to injure women. But, as evident in the documentary, Spears and women like her continue to find ways to speak up about the harms they experience. To listen to Spears speak repeatedly about her desire for freedom, to be, in her words, “liberated,” indicates her own awareness of her situation: “When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like, they hear me, but they’re really not listening. They’re hearing what they want to hear. They’re not really listening to what I’m telling them.”
It is amazing to think that someone who is able to differentiate between “hearing” and “listening” is considered by some unfit to control her own life. Even more, the question not only for Timberlake but for all of us who live in this society is: Will we now listen to her? Will we listen – really listen – to women?